Stuart Kelly is a literary journalist and critic with a formidable reputation for his innovative thought on literary and cultural matters, not only in Scotland, but throughout Britain. He has judged the Man-Booker Prize, the Granta Best Young Novelists of the Year and is one of the judges for the 2014 Dundee Book Prize. He also reviews for Scotland on Sunday and The Guardian. This is an edited version of an email interview conducted on 6th February 2014.
Susan Haigh: Stuart Kelly, you are a former literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, freelance critic and author of numerous books and essays on publishing, books, writers and writing.
How did you become a writer? What and who influenced your early career?
Stuart Kelly: I became a writer because I was always a reader. My Mum, who was my primary 1 teacher, didn’t teach me to read before I went to school even though I had an inkling that letters, sounds and words had some kind of connection. When I did learn to read, she says it was like a dam bursting. I suppose the other factor was a predisposition towards collecting. Once I had one Mr Man book, I had to have them all; that urge towards “completism” carried over once I started reading literature – somewhere I still have the list I made aged fourteen, with one of every ‘classic’ I thought I should read (and then did). The first thing I remember writing was a dreadful epic fantasy, much influenced by The Sword of Shannara – all I really remember is an elf, a dwarf and a human who were told to find a priest who would take them to the gate, and the priest opening his ribcage because he was the gate. The most important personal contact was in my last years at school when Allan Massie did some workshops for us. I vividly remember Allan saying that if you want to be a writer you’d better have a day job as well, and I think that profoundly influenced my decision to concentrate on literary journalism, as well as my own books. In terms of influential books, my S3 English teacher, Alec Beaton, did a huge amount to encourage me. He gave me Hamlet to read over the Christmas holidays.
SH: You obviously had a very clear idea of your future career by the time you left school and reading has always been a priority in your life. But, now, as a busy journalist and writer, you have taken on some major projects in the past year, including judging the Man Booker Prize. How many books did you have to plough through and how on earth did you find the time to read them all?
SK: Whenever I’m asked how I manage to read so much I give them the same answer: it’s my job and I take I professionally. I’m very lucky to have a job which is also my pleasure. I get up about six, start work about eight and work through till eight or nine. In terms of the numbers – we have 151 entries, I read 173 novels for the Man Booker (given that the long list is read twice and the short list three times) and about 140 for Granta. And I was usually reviewing two non-fiction books a week as well.
SH: That’s an enormous undertaking, Stuart, but it must be fascinating. What do you personally look for in a Man Booker Prize winner? What goes on behind the scenes during the judging process? How do you come to a final decision?
SK: My fellow judges for the Man Booker were Robert McFarlane (the chair), Martha Kearney, Natalie Haynes and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. We got on exceptionally well – my chief memory is of how much we laughed together. Robert chaired it expertly – we each had to argue against our favourite because we had to see if the book could stand up to genuine and incisive critical scrutiny. We didn’t vote – something that Robert had hoped to avoid from the outset – but had to argue until we were in a place where none of the judges would have to sit through a Guildhall dinner with a rictus grin. We met, usually monthly, with an agreed number of books to get through (we all read the books in the same order). After we decided on the long list, we re-read these; we also did the same with the short list. My personal conviction – this applies to Granta as well – is that the novel is an evolutionary and revolutionary form. The best novels change the definition of what the novel is. The Luminaries [The winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize] does that.
SH: Which brings us to another major event in the literary world. You were also a judge on the panel for the Granta Best Young Novelists. Would I be right in thinking that there must be particular problems for a judge who is asked to evaluate a ‘young writer’
SK: When John Freeman asked me to be a judge, the first thing I did was to make a list of all the people I thought should be on the list, people I’ve spent a decade promoting, discussing and enthusing about – China Mieville, Nicola Barker, Scarlett Thomas, Rana Dasgupta, Nick Harkaway – and of course, they all age with me, and were therefore ineligible. Judging Granta was more difficult than judging the Man Booker, because we had contradictory sets of criteria. A debut novel – promise or accomplishment? A novelist with maybe four novels that we felt went “great”, “great”, “disappointment”, “re-tread of former glory” … would that be better than someone who went “great”, “great”, “disappointment”, “pretty damn good”? The age limit is artificial – all prizes are to an extent artificial constructs. It’s useful in terms of sifting out the superficially novel from the radically new.
SH: Stuart, when I was doing research for this interview I came across quotation which I found somewhat surprising. You said “What I dislike is mannered, fine writing”. What did you mean by that?
SK: I meant that I dislike the kind of book where every sentence is polished, honed, balanced, luminous and yet the whole doesn’t add up to any significant intellectual or moral proposition. The novel is a hybrid form, growing out of epic and satire, romance and broad-sheet non-fiction; stylistically the novel ought to reflect that: mellifluous prose style seems to be the anathema of what the novel can do. Anything that betrays that sense of the hybrid isn’t just untrue to the novel as a form, it’s untrue to the reality itself. One critical work which has been central to my thinking is Bakhtin’s Problems in Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. Look at how Bakhtin compares the novel to the newspaper: a tragic story sits next to a comedy filler next to political comment. That’s what I look for in a novel.
SH: Can we turn now to another long-standing passion of yours – Scott? Your book, Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Prize and was Radio 4’s Book of the Week. What is it that draws you so strongly to his work?
SK: There are numerous reasons why Scott fascinates me. Working in literary journalism, Scott is a test-case in the fickleness of fame: after his death he’s compared to Shakespeare (any critic now who ended a review “This is as good a Shakespeare” would be laughed out of town); by the 1890’s Zola is saying he’s only fit for schoolchildren; and by the 1990’s he’s excoriated or ignored. My own opinion is that we shouldn’t read him as a mere precursor of Dickens and Thackeray and Eliot; on the contrary, his work continues the 18th Century traditions. When I read all the Waverley Novels, the abiding sense I had was that in each and every novel Scott’s trying to do something new. Scott’s work is not cookie-cutter fiction – substituting “Roundheads” for “Covenanters”. In an age where a huge amount of what passes as literary fiction is “self-plagiarised”, Scott stands for innovation and experiment.
SH: I’d like to ask you now about something that has touched the whole of the literary world recently. You knew Iain Banks well and interviewed him shortly before his death. It may seem an impossible question, but how did that feel at that moment? What were your last impressions of him?
SK: It was very, very difficult to interview Iain, and I wouldn’t presume to call myself a close friend. We were mates, I think: we got on well whenever we met, and whenever I chaired him we had a good time. He asked that I interview him, and that seems to me to be a hugely generous thing to have done, in retrospect. I was shaking like a leaf while looking for his house. I’m still struck by the way he was the first to mention his illness – it took away my own hesitancy. After we met, we had a few chats on the phone as he wanted to clarify things; he’d changed his mind about whether or not he wanted something in the interview (for example, he was critical of Obama’s use of drone strikes but didn’t want it in the interview as it would have been seized on. He didn’t want to give any ammunition as it were to Obama’s opponents; even then he was thinking about others and not himself). I had been worried that when I said goodbye to Iain it would really mean that – and he said “see you soon” instead. In the event, it was “goodbye”. I was genuinely shocked when I got the phone-call to say he had died: I knew it was coming but … it was too soon, too soon. To be robbed of the twenty years he thought he might have had is cruel enough; to be robbed of the six months he was tentatively expecting is awful.
SH: Coming right into the present moment, I know you’ve been much occupied in recent weeks with the organization of Aye Write!, the book festival held at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Tell me something about your involvement.
SK: It’s been a pleasure working with Aye Write! I’m very proud of the programme. It’s like literary journalism, in that you are balancing the well-known and the more esoteric, the Scottish and the global, fiction and non-fiction, genre work and literary work. Book festivals seem to me to be taking the place once occupied by literary journalism, introducing readers to work they might not otherwise have come across. Glasgow’s literary festival is the third biggest festival in the UK, very different to Hay and Edinburgh in that, being held in the Mitchell Library, it has a more permanent presence, and therefore a more obvious duty towards literacy and social inclusion. Chairing is something I’ve come to love doing – it’s a strange liminal space in that you’re just there as a conduit to the writer, and yet you almost orchestrate the audience reaction.
SH: Finally, Stuart, what major changes have you seen on the Scottish literary scene in the past decade? And how do you see its future development?
SK: My hopes for Scottish literature – well, first and foremost, surprise me. In terms of specifics: I am surprised that the predominant fusion elsewhere of popular culture and literary theory – things like Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century, Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Amazing Life of Oscar Wao and so on, has had so little traction in Scotland. My (ha!) generation grew up reading Tolkien and Foucault, Superman comics and Nietzsche – so I’d be delighted if we saw more “pulp+postmodernism”. Generally, I’d like to see a bit more humility as well. The much-vaunted claims of Scotland “punching above its weight” given out by arts bureaucrats and vested interests are hooey frankly. We’re as good as anywhere else – why is that not enough? Finally – and related – make every Creative Writing student in the country read one book not originally written in English. Why we coorie doon navel gazing about the relative virtues and demerits of Irvine Welsh vs. Ian McEwan when we could be reading Juan Goytisolo or Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Michel Houllebecq or Haruki Murakami or Tahar Ben Jelloun is bizarre and depressing.
Photograph of Stuart Kelly © Chris Scott